Ignatius Donnelly: Congressman and Crackpot

Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901) aspired to be many things and was many things, although not necessarily what he aspired to be.


An attorney by profession, Donnelly engaged in many pursuits. His first major venture was in 1856 when he and a business associate, John Nininger, founded Nininger City in the Minnesota Territory. This was a utopian community that lasted only a year before the Panic of 1857 caused all except Donnelly to leave. However, this development did not harm his political chances in the young state of Minnesota. Donnelly served as lieutenant governor and as a Republican in Congress from 1863-1869, where he voted to abolish slavery. However, his enthusiasm for the Republicans waned in the 1870s as he saw them as becoming controlled by business interests. Donnelly ran for Congress again in 1878 as a Democrat, but narrowly lost.

Ignatius Donnelly believed himself to be a visionary and a genius, and in 1882 wrote his most influential book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, in which among thirteen hypotheses he claimed that the Plato’s story of Atlantis was not an allegory and argued that the society of Atlantis constituted the ideal state, a model the United States should follow. This book serves as the starting point of all hypotheses about the alleged existence of Atlantis, but credible scholars then and now regard it as an allegory. He also wrote Caesar’s Column (1891), an apocalyptic book that takes place in 1988 New York in which society is ruled by a financial oligarchy over a suffering working class. The book predicted television, radio, and the use of poison gas in war. Donnelly not only engaged in futurism and attempting to find truth in allegory, but he also attempted to prove Shakespeare’s works were authored by Sir Francis Bacon. In The Great Cryptogram (1888) and The Cipher in the Plays and on the Tombstone (1899), he deciphered a “code” he discovered in Shakespeare’s works, which also led him to conclude that Bacon wrote the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Michel de Montaigne. For Donnelly, Bacon sure got around. His efforts at Shakespearean “scholarship” were poorly received in his time, yet this hasn’t stopped others from trying! The notion that Shakespeare’s author was not really Shakespeare is a notion that is still entertained by people, including Supreme Court justices (Bravin, 2009). He was often regarded humorously in his day, with detractors referring to him as the “Sage of Nininger”. Donnelly also wrote about racism in Doctor Huguet (1891), in which a white intellectual is transformed into a poor black man and must endure the harsh racism prevalent at the time.

In the 1890s, Donnelly was one of the central organizers of the Populist Party and served terms in both houses of the Minnesota State Legislature. He advocated redistributing wealth by instituting an income tax and raising inheritance taxes, backed stronger regulations on railroads and telegraph companies, and supported an eight-hour day law. In Donnelly’s last campaign he was running for Vice President on the Middle Road Populist ticket, a splinter group of a third party. He departed with the close of the 19th century, suffering a fatal heart attack shortly after the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1901.


Bravin, J. (18 April 2009). “Justice Stevens Renders an Opinion on Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays.” The Wall Street Journal.

Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123998633934729551

DeMeules, D.H. (1961). “Ignatius Donnelly: A Don Quixote in the World of Science.” Minnesota History.

Retrieved from http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/37/v37i06p229-234.pdf

“Ignatius Donnelly”. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ignatius-Donnelly

Underhill, R. (2014). Against the Grain: Six Men Who Shaped America. New York, NY: Algora Publishing. 7-22.

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